WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist outlined an ambitious agenda of health initiatives yesterday aimed at lowering the barriers to, and the cost of, medical care.
Frist, a Tennessee heart and lung surgeon who became majority leader 14 months ago, told reporters he hopes to see passage soon of a bill to help improve patient safety and reduce medical errors. He also plans to introduce legislation next week aimed at reducing the racial and ethnic disparities in health care, and will continue efforts to limit medical liability.
Frist praised the handling earlier this week of the discovery of ricin, a deadly poison, in his Senate office mail room. He said lessons learned during an anthrax attack on Senate offices two years ago have been successfully implemented.
"We have come a long way and this agent has been very contained, our response has been more orderly - safety first and foremost," Frist said.
The investigation into who left the powder, and how it was delivered, remains open.
Frist said a bill passed last year that provided a prescription drug benefit would also improve the health of older Americans by offering new Medicare enrollees a physical examination and by increasing preventive and chronic care.
Frist dismissed criticisms from lawmakers outraged by Bush administration projections that the Medicare law's cost will be at least $530 billion over 10 years, one-third more than the $400 billion predicted by the Congressional Budget Office before the bill was adopted.
He said the differing estimates were based on different assumptions of how many beneficiaries would enroll in expanded managed care plans and what impact that would have on the Medicare program.
Frist took a swipe at Democrats, saying they have been playing partisan politics in criticizing the Medicare law, including a provision - originally proposed by Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota - prohibiting Medicare from negotiating directly with drug makers for lower prices.
"It is clear that having the government come in and set these prices ... saves absolutely no money compared to the private sector out there doing the bulk purchasing and the bidding," Frist said, referring to a letter from the Congressional Budget Office. "Competition - over time - is going to work better than price-fixing."
With doctors fleeing some locales and certain hospital facilities such as trauma and obstetrics units closing, Frist said the nation is "getting close to having a national crisis" on access to necessary health care.
"A few years ago, it was all rich doctors not wanting to pay for insurance. That's not the issue anymore," he said. "It's reached the level of affecting the quality of health care. ..."
President Bush has made passage of a limit on medical malpractice liability to $250,000 for "pain and suffering" a high priority, but the Senate has repeatedly blocked such bills.